20 invaluable lessons I’ve learnt running a startup

Two years ago, I hung my tailored jackets and fancy pants for good and left my cozy corporate gig to fully devote myself to building Lendsqr. I knew it was going to be rough for a white bearded baba agba to run a startup but I never knew that in 2 years, I would learn so much as to upend many of the hardcoded corporate knowledge I had used two decades to amass. 

Let’s just say there have been moments I think we founders definitely need our own exclusive support group. 

The lessons I’ve picked, some of the most important ones that I would share here, are things I wish I knew in my previous careers, especially when I got to the top. Things are definitely wild in the startup land.

#1 Overplanning does nothing but slow you down

Don’t overplan. When reality hits, the elaborate decks and models won’t survive the first contact with realities. Just have a few good North stars that keep you focused when things go off-book, because they definitely will. Reality has a knack for ignoring the script and humbling even the best-laid plans. So McKinsey and KPMG, I won’t be calling on you guys any time soon 😎.

#2 Partner with caution

I always knew partnerships are a delicate dance. But what I didn’t know is how fickle partners could be especially when you are the smaller fry. Please, don’t build your entire plan around them. Most of them don’t have the same urgency you most likely do and will just suck you into their morass and corporate spuddle

#3 There’s only one right reason to hire anyone

Hiring isn’t charity work. Don’t ever let your personal biases anywhere near your hiring decisions. Don’t hire out of pity or with the hope that they’ll miraculously improve. But what if they do? Good for them but I don’t care. As a startup, you can’t afford to give chances. It’s a cold truth, I know; but the truth nonetheless. These are adults. They either show you they can do the job from day one or you show them the door.

#4 Keep the nonsense away

Unless you run a garbage collection service, there should be no room for rubbish. Maintain a zero-tolerance policy for toxicity, especially from those who preach about work-life balance. Those guys don’t want to win as badly as you do. The best course of action is to send them away. Fast. Such attitudes can derail the entire team; swift action is your best defense. 

I don’t have a problem with work life-balance. But right now, I’m working so I can afford to balance later. For those who want the balance now, my door is the wrong one to knock.

#5 Social media is a lie

Social media is hype. Everything you see there is 50x less impressive in real life. Keep your expectations grounded or get swept away at your own peril. Whatever is trending now, for good or for bad, won’t be remembered in 2 days time. Keep your peace! ✌️

#6 Be f*ck-shit prudent

You’ve to be financially prudent. Don’t spend unless someone will die if you don’t. Cash you’ve saved can be a lifeline someday but cash you’ve wasted is gone and will be a pain to replace.

We all know that this is a turbulent time for startups trying to raise money. Lendsqr was lucky to have raised funds just weeks before the storm hit but best believe that doesn’t mean I intend to rest on my oars. We could all use some sense.

#7 Measure only the metrics that matter

Beware of fake marketing metrics. Downloads and views are vanity metrics; they don’t mean sh*t. Track the metrics that matter and actually create value for you. For instance, depending on your niche, this could be transfer amount, fees charged, loans booked, order paid, deliveries,etc. Focus on activities that impact these, everything else is just pretty numbers not worth a dime.

#8 The customer is king 👑

Support your customers like your life depends on it because, in the startup world, it often does. Go to the end of the world to make them happy. Listen to them. Be their friends. Even when they have issues beyond what your company is set out to do, help them. Customers will remember you when the going is good and they would be your best sales rep. 

Make sure you are always in contact with them even if they aren’t doing any business with you. Emails and SMS are the cheapest means to remain in your customers’ lives. They are not paying attention to what you’re saying but they sure as know you’re alive and kicking. Top of mind awareness is key!

#9 The customer is often wrong

We’re already thinking about it, might as well say it. Customers don’t know jack-sh*t. Half of the time, customers are driven by vibes, emotions, and FOMO. They ask for things they don’t know anything about. I’ve had tons of customers pay for expensive features and never used them. Well, some of those features helped snag other customers down the line.

You don’t have to do everything a customer wants, no questions asked, just to satisfy them. Ask tons of questions, understand the answers, guide your customers to think the right way when they’re wrong, but of course, the trick is to do it without them ever feeling wrong.

#10 Make sure the price is right

Don’t undervalue your product and make it too cheap. While a free trial might attract attention, the real deal should reflect its true value. Customers willing to pay for value are your tribe. The onus is on you to make sure the value is there and worth every penny.

Beware of customers who don’t want to spend anything to run their businesses; if they really value that business and they honestly think it would succeed, they would spend to bring their dreams alive.

#11 Sharpen your bullshit antenna 

Develop a finely tuned antenna to detect bullshit customers and partners. If they demand the world before committing, they might be on a joy ride at your expense. Cut them loose. The worst thing that can happen is to spend quality time on customers who drain your morale. 

#12 Spying is not only allowed, it’s compulsory

Spy on your competition. You need to know what your customers know. So when a customer claims your rival is better than you, you can call their bluff by showing them exactly why you’re their best bet. I won’t mention names here but I know what you do 😜

#13 Respect the competition

It’s one thing to research your competitors  to gain an advantage but don’t badmouth or demarket the competition. Never ever do it no matter how tempted you are. Defend them if you can because when you do, your customers, staff and the industry actually respect you even much more. 

Your competitors are in the business just like you and if they thrive, the entire market benefits, including you.

#14 Do tons of mystery shopping

Invest time in mystery shopping. Your customer support team might be messing with your customers and causing havoc. Go undercover and find out if you’ve unintentionally hired clowns. 

Do it often and be decisive about actions; if anyone in your company is consistently screwing customers over; cut them loose like a bad habit. Let your team also know that mystery shoppers come around; it keeps them on their toes.

#15 Discipline isn’t negotiable

Don’t play with discipline. Small lapses often lead to big problems. If anyone in your team can’t do the little things right, they will fumble the big things. Are they worth the chance that you might lose everything? Set a standard and a red-line that can’t be crossed – the life of your business depends on it.

#16 Collaborate with the right people

Don’t work with anyone or company lacking ambition, taste, or integrity. They can’t give you what they don’t have so don’t bother asking. These qualities directly influence the success of your startup so stay focused.

And of course, loyalty is a big deal too. You always need someone in your corner when sh*t hits the fan. This can make all the difference.

#17 People will come, people will go then more people will come again

Don’t feel too bad when your staff leave you hanging and can’t stay the course. It’s tough initially but if the success of your business depends on one person, you’re not building a business, you’re building a house of cards. 

But at the same time, you must know why people leave you; is it because you’re toxic or demanding. If toxic, fix your ways. If too demanding; well, nothing you can do about that.

#18 Loyalty is king

People join your team for various reasons; some just want a job and are happy to move on when they smell greener grass. Some want to build a career. Some care about your vision and what the company is doing. But for those who are loyal to you; treat them like royalty because when you are backed to a corner and vulnerable, you want nothing but the assurance that you ain’t alone in the deep trenches. 

And please, repay the loyalty in full and even with some extra toppings on top. And for those who aren’t loyal; don’t hold anything against them; as long as they do their jobs, everyone is fine and dandy.

Lastly, be that person that it’s worth being loyal to.

#19 Experience is not always an advantage

Experienced staff are good on paper but often carry baggage. Be prepared for the weight, and manage expectations accordingly. While some are great, you might be better off with green hires in some cases.

#20 10x employees aren’t a myth

True gems, these 10x individuals are serious, don’t come with bad attitudes and are curious and ready to work. Cherish them; success is made sweeter with them by your side.


And there you have it folks, two years in the business and it already has me just shy of attaining sage status. Running a startup is a wild ride but I’m hanging on with everything I’ve got because success is the only option. 

These are lessons I’ve learnt from my own experience, and they’ve made the journey not only survivable but potentially enjoyable. As a startup, you either adapt or die; there’s nothing in between. 

As for me and mine, F*CK death, we’re in it to win; BIG!

Author: dejiolowe

Adédèjì is the founder of Lendsqr, the loan infrastructure fintech powering lenders at scale. Before this, he led Trium Limited, the corporate VC of the Coronation Group, which invested in Woven Finance, Sparkle Bank, Clane, and L1ght, amongst others. He has almost two decades of banking experience, including stints as the Divisional Head of Electronic Banking at Fidelity Bank Plc. He drove the turnaround of the bank’s digital business. He was previously responsible for United Bank for Africa Group’s payment card business across 19 countries. Alongside other industry veterans, he founded Open Banking Nigeria, the nonprofit driving the development and adoption of a common API standard for the Nigerian financial industry. Beyond open APIs, Adédèjì works deeply within the fintech ecosystem; he’s the board chairman at Paystack. Adédèjì is a renowned fintech pundit and has been blogging on technology and payments at dejiolowe.com since 2001.

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